By Barry Janoff
January 28, 2016: When the WNBA launched in April 1996 and began play in June 1997, there were critics aplenty who foresaw a short live for the NBA's distaff partner.
On May 14, the WNBA is scheduled to begin its 20th season of play, still facing critics, dealing with growth issues and other challenges, but solid with players, marketing partners and a rabid fan base.
A new multi-media campaign, "Watch Me Work," touts not only current stars such as 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne, WNBA Finals MVP Maya Moore, WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi (who missed the 2015 season to focus on playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League), Skylar Diggins and Candace Parker, but looks back at the players who drove the league and inspired players through its first two decades.
The 2015 anthem campaign was "Watch Me."
Last year, the WNBA faced several significant hurdles, including the departure of president Laurel Richie "to pursue other interests," (NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum has been overseeing the WNBA on an interim basis), soft attendance and criticism from NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
"I think we might have been ahead of ourselves 20 years ago in terms of what we were doing, (In 2015, interest is) not where we hoped it would be," Silver said during a sports marketing conference in September. "We thought it would have broken through by now. We thought ratings and attendance would be higher.”
According to Silver, "In terms of our marketing overall, we may have lost our way at certain points."
To Silver's point, the WNBA's average attendance in 2015 was 7,318, the lowest in league history. The average was down 3% from 2014 and down from a one-season high average of 10,864 in 2009.
Silver later clarified that he and the NBA were very supportive of the WNBA. "We are 100% committed to the league," he said.
Also supportive of the league are a roster of national marketing partners.
WNBA Tip-Off 2016 will be presented by Verizon. It consists of 12 games over nine days — May 14-22 — including the home opener of every team.
Samsung was the presenting partner for both the 2015 WNBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
Marketing partners also include adidas, American Express, BBVA Compass, Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light), Coca-Cola, Diageo, EA Sports, Gatorade, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, SAP, Spalding and State Farm.
Several teams ended the 2015 season with jersey-sponsor deals, including the Washington Mystics (Draft Ops), Chicago Sky (Magellan), Minnesota Lynx (Mayo Clinic), Phoenix Mercury (Casino Arizona), Indiana Fever (Finish Line), Los Angeles Sparks (EquiTrust) and New York Liberty (DraftKings).
In October 2014, the NBA and ESPN announced an extension of the partnership between the WNBA and ESPN through which WNBA games would continue to be televised on ESPN networks through the 2025 season.
The agreement extends the league’s relationship with ESPN, which commenced in 1997, to 29 years.
ESPN networks will air as many as 33 games this season, then will broadcast every WNBA post-season game, including the WNBA Finals presented by Verizon.
NBA TV will televise more than 40 games during the regular season.
Among the changes this season, the Tulsa Shock have relocated and rebooted as the Dallas Wings.
The 2016 season features a new regular-season schedule highlighted by more cross-conference games.
In addition, the playoffs will no longer be divided into the Eastern and Western conferences. Instead, the top eight teams by winning percentage will make the playoffs and will be seeded 1 through 8 by record.
As happened during the 2004, 2008 and 2012 seasons, the WNBA take a break in the schedule for the Summer Olympics, during which the U.S. will seek its sixth consecutive gold medal in women’s basketball,
With as many as 25 WNBA players likely to represent their respective countries at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from Aug. 5-21, the league has not scheduled any games from July 23-Aug. 25, also forgoing this season's All-Star Game.
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